Straight Shot: A Chilled Coach is the Recipe for More Saints Success

When it comes to winning titles the New Zealand media doesn’t pay enough respect to the Mills Albert Wellington Saints – 12 championships in 39 seasons from 20 grand final appearances. It’s an incredible record. But the last two years have seen regular season losses pile up as post season victories become as rare as hen's teeth.

Sky Sport commentator Justin Nelson believes a 13th title hinges on the team’s returning star coach.

The Saints have 12 championships as they enter their 40th year in the Sal’s NBL. For those with a calculator, that’s basically a title every three seasons. Oh, to be a Saints fan!

The last came in 2021 with Zico Coronel at the helm, a timely reminder given ‘The Professor’ has re-taken ownership of the Saints’ whiteboard this coming season after both Guy Molloy and Troy McLean were tried and tested, and subsequently moved aside.

The sacking of Molloy in 2022 was unfair given he was handed a mix ‘n match team that arrived late for duty in a very jumbled way, but equally the Saints needed to do something to restore hope after such a sluggish start to the season. While they made the Final 6 that year, a quick exit was inevitable as they just weren’t as good as the frontrunners.

Troy McLean (who suited up in his final season as a player in Zico’s 2021 team) assumed the coaching mantle in the midst of the 2022 season before going around again in 2023. It was a tough stint as the Saints just couldn’t find their best form consistently and another slow start had them needing wins down the stretch. Again, an early exit at the Final 6 sent the Saints back to the offseason with no hardware and the need for a new plan – for all the new fans out there, early finals exits aren’t tolerated for long at Saints HQ.

More losses in the last two seasons (19) compared to the previous six years combined (18) tells you changes were needed. Welcome back Zico!

Of course Zico isn't the only change from 2022 as Kyle Adnam, Tom Vodanovich, Isaiah Mucius, Marlon Taylor(released during the 23' season), Kenneth Tuffin and Elijah Thomas are all gone, while chances are Taane Samuel won’t be returning either. Good news Tall Blacks Izayah Le’afa and Tohi Smith-Milner are now locked in as well as the rapidly improving Rangimarie Dougall-Mita, but overall that’s some sort of turnover.

While we know Coronel has the attributes to take the Saints back to the top, what he will quickly notice is that during his two-year coaching stint overseas the Sal’s NBL has both improved and become more competitively balanced, there are simply no more easy games.

Back in 2021 under Coronel the Saints went 18-2 and had an average winning margin of 23 points. That won’t happen this season. They will lose more than two games and the winning margin will drop, which again highlights today’s tougher league with its better and more even spread of talent.

Coronel has a unique coaching style. He knows the game back-to-front, no question, his tactical knowledge and ability to break the game down has him placed as one of the best coaches in New Zealand, and highly regarded offshore. His return is a welcome one.

Spend five minutes with Zico and you will be left dazed and dazzled as his basketball brain ticks at speed right before your eyes, it’s like he is locked and loaded and about to step out and coach at any given second. You get the feeling he is consumed by the game and always has both feet firmly on the bus, it is all encompassing for him. And boy is that bus zooming most of the time.

During a game Coronel wears his heart on his sleeve. He rides every bump relentlessly almost as if he is in the middle of the battle, but he is also often involved with referees on the sound of a whistle. His intensity on the sidelines is where I think some changes will be critical for success.

Go back to 2021 and Coronel ran afoul of the League on multiple occasions and copped some financial penalties because of it. At times his laser focus to the craft doesn’t allow him to see the full picture. A somewhat chilled Coronel is a must this season, I honestly think this will be his greatest test, and potentially his greatest achievement if he gets it right. Behaviour is infectious and the Saints need a season where confrontations with officials don’t become a distraction.

Over the last two seasons, the Saints have copped 18 technical fouls in games, which is well clear of the Airs (10) and Tuatara (7). Last season the Saints committed twice as many tech fouls as the next team. In fact, add the technical fouls in 2023 together for the Nuggets (0), Sharks (1), Giants (1), Bulls (2), Hawks (3) and Jets (3) and we arrive at the same number as the Saints (10).

Putting it bluntly, it is  a problem.

There’s no silverware to be won on the tech foul ladder and it’s a bad look in front of the fans. We know Zico can lead as an X’s and O’s coach, but this year he needs to lead when it comes to behaviour and conduct as well. The Saints must stop losing their way in games and giving opposition teams bonus shots.

The Saints will come with a solid gameplan, and they’ll aim to entertain, but for me the road to the Final 6 and a potential 13th championship will hinge on a chilled coach Coronel who has his players focused on the things they can control.  

What they can control is themselves. That’s the test ahead of them.


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